The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

Alexander Keyssar, Basic Books, 2009

Most Americans take for granted their right to vote, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But the history of suffrage in the U.S. is, in fact, the story of a struggle to achieve this right by our society's marginalized groups. In The Right to Vote, HKS historian Alexander Keyssar explores the evolution of suffrage over the course of the nation's history. Examining the many features of the history of the right to vote in the U.S.—class, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and age—the book explores the conditions under which American democracy has expanded and contracted over the years. Keyssar presents convincing evidence that the history of the right to vote has not been one of a steady history of expansion and increasing inclusion, noting that voting rights contracted substantially in the U.S. between 1850 and 1920. Keyssar also presents a controversial thesis: that the primary factor promoting the expansion of the suffrage has been war and the primary factors promoting contraction or delaying expansion have been class tension and class conflict. The June 2009 edition includes a new chapter on voting rights since 2000.